Thick As A Brick: Ian Anderson Talks Jethro Tull, Salmon, and a Sequel 40 Years in the Making

Fifty years ago Jethro Tull released their first album, THIS WAS, on October 25, 1968, a mix of folk rock and rhythm-and-blues tunes that would set the basic template for their approach to varied musical styles. While their instrumental experimentation would evolve in both increments and leaps and bounds, they would eventually become best known as a wild, progressive rock band with frontman/founder Ian Anderson’s signature flute and stage frolicking front and center.

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The band’s sound reached a pinnacle of fine-tuned perfection in a very short time with the release of AQUALUNG in 1971, and then entered the concept phase with the release of their fifth album a year later in 1972, THICK AS A BRICK. It was intended to be a bit of a spoof, actually — a send-up of the pretentiousness of prog rock. But more than four decades later, BRICK is taken very seriously as a musical masterpiece — and arguably their best album.

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On the 40th anniversary of the legendary 1972 disc, Tull founder and frontman Ian Anderson took the time to talk to me when I was with ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT about his inspiration for writing an entire album from the perspective of a confused little boy named Gerald Bostock; why he finally decided to make THICK AS A BRICK 2 in 2012; the sorry state of the music industry today — and why he decided to walk away from salmon farming.

It’s some really interesting stuff…

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David Weiner: How did the idea first come about for THICK AS A BRICK?

Ian Anderson: I didn’t want to make another album that just was AQUALUNG Part II, but do something different. It felt the right time to do something that was in part spoof, parody if you like, of the prog rock genre of the day, and partly was a serious endeavor to extend both lyric writing and music writing to a higher level of technique and detail than I’d done before.

DW: What prompted you to write an album from the point of view of Gerald Bostock, an 8-year-old boy, and even credit the lyrics to him?

Ian Anderson: Well probably there was a little bit of autobiographical stuff going on from my own school days and pre-school days, really. Definitely in the pre-teen years from seven to ten, that was a period when I suppose a lot of us get some ideas about things, which turn out quite often to be really quite horribly wrong, and we discover that in our mid-teens that we were just sold a lie, or we misconstrued certain notions — perhaps of gallantry, bravery, responsibility. So yes, there’s quite a lot of autobiographical little elements on THICK AS A BRICK 1, and as indeed on THICK AS A BRICK 2, a certain amount of the manifestations of Gerald as a grown up, I’m drawing upon my own experiences as well as experiences of friends, acquaintances, and putting together those different characters.320px-Tull_flute_pose_sil.jpg

DW: Since it was meant to be somewhat of a satire of the pretentiousness of rock, do you look back in retrospect and take the first album pretty seriously? Or do you see it more from the humor point of view?

Ian Anderson: I think the whole point of the album was that they had to work on both levels. It had to be both parody and have an element of seriousness as well. And I tried to strike, back then, that right balance, and hopefully the performance today, that’s the way we do it. There is an element of seriousness, as well as that slight fun-and-games, tongue-in-cheek element there too, so it’s kind of important for me to have those things going on side-by-side, both with THICK AS A BRICK 1 and THICK AS A BRICK 2, which is more serious and less parody — but still has its upbeat humorous moments and I try and balance out the serious, thoughtful bits with the more whimsical, amusing bits. It’s part of trying to write with some light and shade, some dramatic content, a degree of entertaining complexity.

DW: Is there a certain amount of freedom by not being limited by the two or three-minute song structure? And was it difficult to pull it off?

Ian Anderson: There is a degree of freedom, but when I started off … I ran the restrictions of a vinyl album, and back then that’s all we had. Nowadays, of course, we have various different forms of media and we don’t have necessarily the same restrictions. You could shoehorn 80 minutes onto a CD if you want, but you can only shoehorn realistically about 25 minutes a side onto a vinyl album. … I’m not a vinyl fan. I loathe the stuff, but that doesn’t mean that other people who do like it aren’t meant to [be served by the format] — just as I’m not a Christian, but every year I do charity concerts in churches and cathedrals for the benefit of those who enjoy being in those buildings, to be served by their notions of the Christian religion and the Christian God, so I’m an easy-going guy, I’m just there to please.

DW: I like that. You’re equal opportunity to the Luddites as well as the high-tech. I was pleasantly surprised to know that THICK AS A BRICK 2 was coming out at all. How long has this been kicking around in your head? From the moment you finished the first THICK AS A BRICK in ’72, did you think you would ever be coming back to this?

Ian Anderson: No, no. I was all determined for 39-40 years that I would never make a sequel to THICK AS A BRICK, because it just seemed to be a stand-alone, one-off thing that was best left where it was. But it was the challenge, I supposed, laid down to me a few times by people in media, fans, record company guys, you know? Several times over the years I’ve been asked to seriously consider making a sequel, and finally, of course after 39 years, I suddenly thought, ‘Okay, well now I have a way to do this through the very simple question: Whatever happened to Gerald Bostock, and what might’ve happened to the St. Cleve Chronicle, the fictitious newspaper that’s on the cover of the original album?’ And so those two questions demanded an answer, and the answer was in February of last year I sat down and wrote between 15 and 20 different scenarios that might reflect what young Gerald Bostock might’ve become, and decided to go out and pick five of them and extrapolate on those. … I suddenly had a concept, if you like, that made sense to write an album for today, not an album for the nostalgic way that was a sequel set in ’72 or ’73. I really didn’t want to go back there. I wanted to do something that was about today and the world in which we live in today, which in many ways is very different than the one of 40 years ago.

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DW: Have you closed the book on Gerald?

Ian Anderson: I really thought I had until about two weeks ago, and I woke up in the middle of the night with another thought. It’s certainly not THICK AS A BRICK 3, but I just thought maybe Gerald has a little life in him yet. I just kind of like the more or less weekly newsletters called THE BOSTOCK DIARIES which appear on our web site and on Facebook. … I rather like the rather cantankerous, failed politician and middle-aged, getting a bit kind of angry — I quite like the angry Gerald, so I actually think I might possibly have just another Gerald moment, but a very different one to this.

Ian Anderson & His Catch

DW: I was watching a vintage clip from DAVID LETTERMAN of you smoking a pipe, talking about salmon farming and the Loch Ness Monster. Are you still in the salmon farming business?

Ian Anderson: No, that was 20 years of my life, really, between ’78 and 2001 to 2002, and I decided it was probably time in my life to step back from doing things other than music, because I felt I really had to make a choice, and I didn’t feel like I could possibly carry on with the responsibility of running a company employing 400 people — and with quite often difficult decisions to make regarding not only the commercial side of running a company, but the ethical side of running a company. And so some things about the intensive nature of fish farming and some of the environmental issues, they kind of helped me decide that it was probably time to get out of that. If I was going to have a carbon footprint in life, I’d rather it came from a musical direction than through the increasing industrial scale of agriculture.

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DW: For this social media generation, why do you think Jethro Tull’s music endures? What is it about the music that is timeless to this day?

Ian Anderson: I think that it works on two levels. I think that there are those who come to Jethro Tull music either as adults or as teenagers because they hear it and they like it. Intrinsically, it’s the music, but there are also those that perhaps hear it because they have diligently sought it out, because they’re interested in the historical perspective of rock music. And particularly for younger people, it helps identify who you are in the context of your parents if you listen to the music they listened to, if you watch the movies they watched, if you read the books that they read. I think that we find out about ourselves by finding out about our parents. … I think that’s why people will often discover the music of the previous generation by checking out what their parents listened to and wondering about it. … It’s easy enough to go to Mr. Google or Mr. Amazon or Mr. iTunes and hit the button and download a track or just listen to it for free. In fact, all they really have to do is just go to JethroTull.com where 24 hours a day Jethro Tull repertoire is playing on the live streaming Tull Radio, which is on the home page.

DW: Do you have strong opinions about the access to free music these days compared to going to a traditional brick and mortar store or buying music on Amazon or iTunes? The fact that so much is free now, have you given in to this new territory, or does it bother you?

Ian Anderson: It doesn’t strictly bother me in regards to people who have made a ton of money selling records over the last twenty, thirty, or forty years. It doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is really the artists trying to make a go of it today — young musicians struggling to find an outlet for the music find it very, very difficult to be rewarded for their effort. … You had a fighting chance 40, 50 years ago making a living as a musician. These days the odds against you are overwhelming that you’re ever going to get paid for what you do, and it’s really a tough world. I’m quite angry about the fact that people have gotten used to the idea that they simply don’t have to bother paying for anything. It doesn’t seem to be an ethical question — it’s just almost like you’re stupid if you actually pay for it — but somebody has to make the records. They don’t make themselves. Somebody has to publish them, somebody has to make them available in its physical content, and to market and promote what you’re doing costs just as much money — arguably even more — than it did back in the days when physical product was all there was. … You can go and look at the reality: record companies and airlines are in deep shit, and to some extent, for kind of similar reasons. It has to do with enormous difficulty in competing. … You have very few record companies left on planet Earth, and they’re all fighting for survival in a very difficult economic climate.

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Bonus Ian Anderson goodness: Watch the video below to see my interview with Ian about his 2014 album HOMO ERRATICUS and dinner-table conversation with his son-in-law, THE WALKING DEAD star Andrew Lincoln:

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